Search Results for 'silent'


City Lights

It would be unfair to mix the silent comedy features and shorts together in any kind of ranking. The shorts are funnier per foot of film, while the features have stronger characters and more satisfying plots. It may seem odd to list only Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd features, when there are so many comic talents to choose from. Even so, it would be best start at the top and work down to the next rung, which would include Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, and Raymond Griffin. Walter Kerr’s book The Silent Clowns is the best introduction (other than the films themselves) to this most creative era of film comedy — so far.

(1) City Lights (1931; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

(2) The Gold Rush (1925; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

(3) Seven Chances (1925; directed by Buster Keaton) On DVD

(4) The General (1927; directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman) On DVD

(5) The Kid Brother (1927; directed by Ted Wilde and J. A. Howe; starring Harold Lloyd)

(6) Modern Times (1936; directed by Charlie Chaplin) On DVD

(7) The Freshman (1925; directed by Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer; starring Harold Lloyd)

(8) Sherlock, Jr. (1924; directed by Buster Keaton) On DVD

(9) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927; directed by Charles F. Riesner; starring Buster Keaton) On DVD

(10) The Kid (1921; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Sunday, August 23 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the least appreciated of the top screwball comedies, in part because director Leo McCarey isn’t as well known as directors Frank Capra, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or even Howard Hawks. His best comedies include Let’s Go Native (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and The Awful Truth. These comedies share a relaxed feel, seamless construction, and almost unequaled comic timing. McCarey was quite willing to improvise on the set, yet his films stay focused, which isn’t always the case with directors who improvise. Of course, it helps if you’re working with top talent. McCarey directed some of the best work of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor.

McCarey shifted away from comedy in the 1940s. During the war years and into the 1950s, he specialized in competently made, often sentimental dramas, such as Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Throughout his career, McCarey brought a human touch to his films that was both sincere and discerning. According to Andrew Sarris’ book The American Cinema, “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

The Awful Truth is based on Arthur Richman’s 1921 Broadway play of the same name, which was also the basis for a 1925 silent film and a 1929 sound film. The same story was remade as a musical in 1953 with the oddly appropriate title, Let’s Do It Again.

Because McCarey could make the characters so believable and likeable, almost from the start, he and screenwriter Viña Delmar were able to infuse the dialogue with an intelligence and grace you rarely see this side of Lubitsch. Here’s an example of the lines given to the main actors, Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) and Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner):

Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?
Jerry: Aren’t you?
Lucy: No.
Jerry: Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool… but I’m not now.
Lucy: Oh.
Jerry: So long as I’m different, don’t you think that… well, maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?

If you like comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), you’re almost sure to like this one. It’s a rare treat.

The Awful Truth
(1937; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, August 23 at 8:50 p.m. eastern on getTV
Wednesday, August 26 at 2:30 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on getTV
Thursday, August 27 at 4:45 p.m. eastern on getTV

The Blue Angel

Ask film buffs about director Josef von Sternberg, and you may receive a blank stare. Others assume that The Blue Angel (1930), his best known film, was probably the work that brought him to Hollywood. In fact, Sternberg had already made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing such silent gems as The Salvation Hunters (1925), Underworld (1927), Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

When Emil Jannings returned to the German studio Ufa following the advent of sound, he requested that Sternberg direct his first sound film. Once the script was written, Sternberg and producer Erich Pommer weren’t sure who should play the part of Lola, the cabaret singer. Ufa was about to spend half a million dollars on the production, so the casting for the part was critical. By chance, Sternberg saw Marlene Dietrich on stage in Berlin (he had attended the play to see another actor). In his book Josef von Sternberg, Herman G. Weinberg writes:

From the moment Sternberg noticed Dietrich on the stage he knew he had found his Lola, but neither she nor the heads of Ufa were sure she could do it. It took a lot of persuasion before she agreed to a screen test. Sternberg was pleased with it and Pommer, who always protected the artistic choice of his directors, approved the signing of Miss Dietrich.

The film was a big success in Germany. Sternberg had shot both German and English versions of the film. By the time it opened in the United States, Dietrich had already signed a contract with Paramount, where she and Sternberg would make six more films together: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), The Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).

With Sternberg’s later films at Paramount, especially The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, he crafted lighting techniques and a visual style that set him apart from other filmmakers. For Sternberg, the plot and characters are less important than the overall atmosphere. For lesser directors that would be a recipe for disaster, but for Sternberg, it set him free to explore and create films unlike any others, that are no less interesting than films driven primarily by plot and character.

Don’t worry, The Blue Angel doesn’t go that far. Plot and character are among its strong suits. It’s worth watching for a host of reasons, not the least of which are the outstanding performances by Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. This is the film where Dietrich first sings, “Falling in Love Again.”

The Blue Angel
(1930; directed by Josef von Sternberg; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $34.95 (DVD)

Saturday, August 22 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, August 19 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Duck Soup

Marx Brothers fans usually fall into two camps: those who think Duck Soup (1933) is their best film, and those who think A Night at the Opera (1935) is their best film. The strongest argument in favor of A Night at the Opera is the stateroom scene. It’s the funniest sequence the Marx Brothers ever created. I’m in the Duck Soup camp. I think the slow portions of A Night at the Opera tend to drag it down a bit. And while no single sequence in Duck Soup quite matches the stateroom scene, it’s more consistently entertaining.

Much of the credit has to go to Duck Soup’s writers. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked together on the story, and Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin provided additional dialogue. It also didn’t hurt to have Groucho (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico (Chicolini), and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale) to deliver the lines. Here are some examples:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.
Rufus T. Firefly: Now let me see. Has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia… Is it male or female?
Chicolini: No, I no think so.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is he dead?
Chicolini: Who?
Rufus T. Firefly: I don’t know. I give up.
Chicolini: I give up, too.

Prosecutor: Chicolini, when were you born?
Chicolini: I don’t-a remember. I was just a little baby.

Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Prosecutor: No, I’m talking about taxes — money, dollars!
Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

Duck Soup benefits by having a first-class director at the helm. Leo McCarey had directed many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent comedies. His previous sound comedies, especially Let’s Go Native (1930) and The Kid from Spain (1932), show an inventive and improvisational style that would blend well with the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, Duck Soup was a flop at the box office. As a result, it was their last film at Paramount. MGM gave them another chance, though their freewheeling approach would prove to be at odds with the MGM factory system. Their comedies following A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are pale imitations of their earlier classic films.

Duck Soup
(1933; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List price: $19.98

Friday, August 14 at 10:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, July 19 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Passion of Joan of Arc

If the historical figure at the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) could be said to embody uncompromised dedication, the same could be said of the film’s director, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Consisting entirely of close-ups and medium shots, with only the sparest of backgrounds, Dreyer relentlessly focuses in on the characters and conflicts. It may be the closest we’ve ever come to a pure narrative cinema. As you might expect, reactions to this pared-down style vary. Most film historians view this as one of the greatest silent films ever made. I wholeheartedly agree. Others see it as too extreme. You’ll have decide for yourself.

Much of the emotional appeal of this film can be attributed to the remarkable performance by Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. It is often cited as the finest performance ever committed to celluloid. In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Dreyer explains how he chose Falconetti for the part:

I went to see her one afternoon and we spoke together for an hour or two. I had seen her at the theatre. A little boulevard theatre whose name I have forgotten. She was playing there in a light, modern comedy and she was very elegant in it, a bit giddy, but charming. She didn’t conquer me at once and I didn’t have confidence in her immediately. I simply asked her if I could come to see her the next day. And during that visit, we talked. That is when I sensed that there was something in her to which one could make an appeal. Something that she could give; something, therefore that I could take.

For, behind the make-up, the pose, behind that modern and ravishing appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade. If I could see her remove the facade it would suffice me. So I told her that I would very much like, starting the next day, to do a screen test with her. ‘But without make-up,’ I added, ‘with your face completely naked.’

She came, therefore, the next day ready and willing. She had taken off her make-up, we made the tests, and I found on her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc: a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered. But even so, this discovery did not represent a total surprise for me, for, from our first meeting, this woman was very frank and, always, very surprising.

Dreyer based the script on the original trial transcripts from the year 1431, as well as a novel by Joseph Delteil. The film took a year and a half to complete, in part because Dreyer insisted that the costumes, church, courtyard, gestures, and other aspects of the production were as authentic as possible. The whole construction was painted pink, rather than white, to give it a gray tint against the sky.

According to Ebbe Neergaard’s book Carl Dreyer: A Film Director’s Work, Dreyer demanded absolute silence and banished anyone who wasn’t needed whenever Falconetti had an important scene. Neergaard writes, “She was, as it were, activated into expressing what Dreyer could not show her, for it was something that could only be expressed in action, not speech, and she alone could do it, so she had to help him. And she realized that this could only be done if she dropped all intellectual inhibitions and let her feelings have free access from her subconscious to her facial expression.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Monday, June 29 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD)

Friday, June 26 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Greed

Ask any film archivist what would be a great find, and you’ll probably hear the words, “the complete Greed.” Greed (1924) was voted one of the twelve best films of all time by an international jury at the 1958 Brussels Exposition. Yet the release version, which runs about two hours, is only a quarter the length of the original rough cut and about half the length of the edited version that director Erich von Stroheim was willing to accept. It prompts the question: If the two-hour butchered version is so good, how much better might the original four-hour or eight-hour versions be? Unfortunately, those versions no longer exist. Whether they were in fact better or not, we may never know.

The first three films Stroheim directed were big financial successes: Blind Husbands (1919), The Devil’s Passkey (1920), and Foolish Wives (1922). His realistic style, obsessive attention to detail, and unflinching character portrayals inspired Jean Renoir to become a film director. Renoir’s realistic style — in turn — inspired the Italian Neo-Realist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. By 1922, Stroheim had attained the kind of clout in Hollywood held only by Chaplin and Griffith. When the Goldwyn Company agreed to back his next project, a film based on Frank Norris’ naturalistic novel McTeague, the studio had no idea Stroheim would adapt the entire book and make no effort to sugarcoat the story’s grittiness and stark pessimism.

In his book Saint Cinema, Herman G. Weinberg wrote of Stroheim and Greed:

His fanatical quest for more realistic portrayals sometimes led him to extremes, and Jean Hersholt tells the story of the filming at Death Valley, where Stroheim actually drove his actors frantic until they were in such a state of wrath that they had no difficulty in playing the scenes of the fight at the end of the picture. Stroheim is said to have told them to look at each other with hatred, as if they were looking at him.

Based on the production stills and continuity script, we can piece together what the complete film might have looked like. Weinberg published a book in 1972 titled The Complete “Greed,” where he reconstructed the original cut using 400 stills. In 1999, Rick Schmidlin took the effort even further by combining the existing footage with 650 stills. Through optical pans, zooms, and iris effects, Schmidlin was able to bring a cinematic touch to the stills and successfully fill in many of the gaps in the narrative. This version runs 242 minutes.

Neither the theatrical release or Schmidlin’s reconstruction are currently available on DVD. Turner Classic Movies shows both versions from time to time. All things being equal, it would probably be best to see the theatrical version first, but because they turn up only occasionally, you may want to dive right into the reconstructed version. Either way, you’ll be amazed at the emotional power and visual subtlety that could be achieved with silent film.

Based on the 129 minute running time, it appears that TCM will not be running Rick Schmidlin’s reconstructed version of Greed on June 15.

Greed
(1924; directed by Erich von Stroheim; cable)

Monday, June 15 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Rashomon

Rashomon (1950) might have been just a concept film — a fascinating idea trapped inside a mediocre movie. Instead, director Akira Kurosawa gave us a film that’s equally rich in character and imagery. It was so successful, the title became synonymous with its plot device, that four witnesses could recount radically different versions of the facts. Another director might have steered us toward the conclusion that one of the four versions is the true version. Kurosawa strives for a deeper understanding, that we inevitably filter reality through various psychological, social, and religious prisms.

While much is made of Rashomon’s inspired depiction of subjective truth, you rarely read about its other innovations. Compared with his previous efforts, including Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon represents a significant shift in Kurosawa’s approach to filmmaking.

In Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explained how he wanted to recapture his childhood enthusiasm for film as a purely visual medium:

Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, ruminating over the aesthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa ‘In a Grove’ story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow.

The lights and shadows are enhanced by intricately orchestrated camera movements. Much like the camera movements in Sunrise (1927), Rashomon’s camera sometimes follows the characters, sometimes leads the characters, and sometimes moves in opposition to the characters. In Sunrise, the camera movements reflect the husband’s moral hesitation in meeting with the city woman. In Rashomon, the camera movements reflect the viewer’s struggle to find a common path through the four stories.

Kazuo Miyagawa, the film’s cinematographer, carefully mapped out the scenes where the viewer is led through the forest, often at breakneck speeds. Miyagawa broke with cinematic conventions when he aimed the camera directly at the sun as it moved in and out of the trees. The same effect was copied in Hollywood throughout the 1950s and 1960s, both for movies and television. Kurosawa and Miyagawa chose to photograph the Rashomon gate in pouring rain to enhance its bleakness. After running a series of tests and determining the rain wouldn’t be visible, they added black ink to the rain so it could be seen against the gray sky.

This movie improves with each viewing, not because the plot is overly complex, but because it has so much to offer visually, aesthetically, and philosophically.

Rashomon
(1950; directed by Akira Kurosawa; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Monday, June 8 at 2:30 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Wind

The Wind (1928) is a high watermark (if you’ll excuse the pun) for both its star and director. Lillian Gish had played mostly innocent waifs in D. W. Griffith’s films. Those performances are among her best, but she hadn’t been given a chance to take on a wide range of roles.

When she signed with Irving Thalberg at MGM, she was given almost complete control over her career. Her first two films there were La Boheme (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926). Gish chose the directors (King Vidor and Victor Seastrom, respectively) and the leading men (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson, respectively), as well as the stories.

For the third film, she chose Seastrom and Hanson again. Based on Dorothy Scarborough’s novel of the same name, The Wind gave Gish an opportunity to play an innocent who becomes a more experienced, self-aware woman. It was her last and best silent performance.

Before immigrating to Hollywood, Swedish-born Victor Seastrom (a.k.a. Victor Sjöström) had established a reputation as one of Europe’s most talented film directors. His Swedish films often contrasted repressed (even obsessively stunted) characters with the elemental forces of nature. His best known American films — He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind — also deal with repression and suffering.

Despite the somber plotlines, Seastrom’s films are breathtakingly beautiful in their depiction of the natural world. Seastrom seems to be saying that human pettiness means little when set against the grander scale of nature. Repression of one’s own nature, or stifling the nature of others, is viewed as contrary to the natural order of things.

Repression versus nature is the central theme of The Wind. Gish is perfectly cast as an innocent who is expected to conform to the base and selfish desires of those around her. As her character matures, Gish handles the transitions with self-assurance, while still retaining enough naiveté to make the changes appear convincing.

Few films are able to portray nature as such a tangible presence, as The Wind is able to do. The wind and sand are as much a part of the story as any of the characters. I can’t think of any other films, with the exception of two Japanese movies from 1964 (Woman in the Dunes and Onibaba), where the story, characters, and location are as intricately connected for the entire length of the film.

The Wind
(1928; directed by Victor Seastrom; cable)

Tuesday, June 2 at 6:45 a.m. on Turner Classic Movies

La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Thursday, May 28 at 11:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Monday, May 25 at 3:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies